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The metronome is 200 years old

The metronome is a device with a pendulum that is ticking in regular intervals, the number of beats in a minute can be cet. We can provide the exact tempo for a music piece and we can check the steadiness of playind an instrument with its help. The word metronome is the composition of two greek words: metron = measure, nomos = regulation, comes from 1815. Starting its manufacturing is linked to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a german engineer.

There were attempts to make such devices even in the 9th century. The first similar device was developed in 1814 by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel, in Amszterdam, he called it musical chronometer. The original device is kept in a Dutch museum. He didn't protect his invention so Mälzel used and developed his idea and patentedit in England one year later. Manufacturing started in 1816. It was Beethoven who gave metronome signs for his opuses (from 1817).

Metronome app on iPhoneThe nowadays used metronomes are based on the Mälzel-metronome. The steadily moving pendulum is powered by a spring, thevelocity can be set by sliding the counterweight on the arm of the pendulum. There is a scale which gives the beats per minute (typically between 40 and 208). Beside the mechanical metronomes there are also digital models developed, as well as metronome softwares generated for computers and smartphones. The most digital pianos contain a metronome function. Digital metronomes and softwares have the possibility to set the time signature, too, so the device gives a different tick for every second / third / fourth etc. beat.

The metronome and piano education

How to practise with a metronome? Different artists and different teachers have different opinion about practising with a metronome. Let me add that different advices are suitable for different students. It is expressly useful to use a metronome if the student hardly plays dotted rhythm or other difficult rhythms. The metronome can be harmful if the student's playing is mechanical or unmusical.

I recommend to use a metronome in two ways:

  • If you can't play an etude or a technically difficult piece in the right tempo instantly, you can search for a comfortable beat value that you can play the opus or a part of it. You should match your playing to the steady ticking, then move up the tempo step by step for each playing. When you feel you reached the right tempo you can leave the metronome and practise freely. You can check your beat after playing as well.
  • If you would like to give an exact beat value to your playing, give some ticks with the metronome before playing. If the composer gives you the tempo precisely or gives different tempo for the different parts you are advised to give some ticks for each part. The goal is to keep your feeling of the tempo and make yourself be able to evoke it exactly, even without a metronome.